Sri Lanka to 'replicate' Philippine drug-war police state

Posted on July 17th, 2018 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .

South AsiaSri Lanka has announced that it will start hanging drug convicts, ending a long moratorium on executions. Leaders explicitly hope to "replicate the success" of Rodrigo Duterte's bloody anti-drug campaign in the Philippines, which has now reached the point of mass murder. And while the imminent executions are for cocaine and heroin charges, the move comes amid a widening crackdown on cannabis. Yet proposals to allow medical cultivation provide some hope for a more tolerant model.

Even as human rights groups around the world decry the reign of terror unleashed in the name of drug enforcement in the Philippines, some countries in South and Southeast Asia are emulating Manila's crackdown as a model. And the latest to embark down this path is the island nation of Sri Lanka.  

Death penalty for drugs —again
Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena told his cabinet last week he is “ready to sign the death warrants” of repeat drug offenders, according to a spokesperson. “From now on, we will hang drug offenders without commuting their death sentences,” the representative told The Guardian.

Sri Lanka declared a moratorium on executions in 1976, since then commuting death sentences to life in prison. There are now 19 drug convicts whose commuted death sentences are about be carried out—for starters.

"We were told that the Philippines has been successful in deploying the army and dealing with this problem," the presidential representative said. "We will try to replicate their success." 

This quickly elicited protest. The European Union and other diplomatic missions immediately expressed their concern. In a joint statement, the EU delegation and the embassies of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Canada said they had written to Sirisena seeking urgent clarification on the matter.

The letter said the diplomats "strongly and unequivocally oppose capital punishment in all circumstances and in all cases," according to the Associated Press.  "The death penalty is incompatible with human dignity, does not have any proven deterrent effect, and allows judicial errors to become fatal and irreversible."

Cannabis crackdown, media 'ganja madness'
Under Sri Lanka's Poisons, Opium, and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance of 1984, only opiates and cocaine are punishable by death. But penalties for possession of cannabis, even in small quantities, are harsh—with judges having wide discretion to impose prison terms.

And the move to resume executions comes amid growing cannabis busts and much official hyperventilation about the threat posed by "Kerala ganja."  That's cannabis coming across the Palk Strait from the southern Indian state of Kerala, which has in recent years emerged as a major producer. India's Deccan Chronicle reported in November of a wave of major seizures (up to 150 kilograms, or some 330 pounds) by Sri Lankan authorities, mostly along the island's northern coast. There's been much sensationalism in Sri Lanka's media about the Kreala cannabis trade being under the control of Maoist guerillas.

In the latest haul, Sri Lankan naval forces arrested four Indian nationals bringing in a load of Kerala cannabis July 16. Local news portal Colombo Page said the haul of 36 kilos was seized from an Indian dhow west of Analathivu Island, off the northern coast.

Sri Lanka's cannabis contradiction
There are also some signs of progress on the question in Sri Lanka, even amid the big busts and media hype. The 1984 ordinance does make an exception for cultivation of cannabis and production of extracts or tinctures—under tight government control. At present, there is little of that going on. In 2013, Minister of Indigenous Medicine Salinda Dissanayake submitted a bill to allow cultivation for medicinal purposes.

The Ayurveda Act, the country's principal law on medicine, does allow prescription of cannabis—which has a centuries-old tradition of medicinal use on the island.

And a proposal for commercial cultivation for export to the international medical market was unveiled last September. The idea, reported by AFP wire service and plugged in a YouTube video, was announced by parliamentarian Rajitha Senaratne. He's calling for a 40-hectare (100-acre) plantation to produce some 25 metric tons a year—under military supervision. In pitching the idea, Senaratne noted Sri Lanka's long history of medicinal use. "Good cannabis is a vital ingredient in the preparation of traditional medicine," he told reporters.

He noted that medical users in Sri Lanka now rely on handouts of seized contraband cannabis from judicial authorities. "By the time our native doctors get this cannabis, it is about four to five years old and it has lost its effectiveness," Senaratne said. His proposed farm at Ingiriya, southeast of capital Colombo, would assure quality for the domestic market as well as generating foreign exchange.

In short, Sri Lanka's political establishment seems divided on the cannabis question—going simultaneously in contradictory directions. 

Duterte's draconian model
With President Sirisena openly emulating the Philippines' ultra-hardline Rodrigo Duterte, it is clear that the stakes are high. In March 2017, when Philippine opposition lawmakers launched impeachment proceedings against President Duterte, they charged that his murderous police and paramilitary forces had killed 8,000 drug suspects since he took office in June 2016. The figure is likely now much higher, as the "shoot-to-kill" policy has continued—while the strongman's parliamentary bloc has held up the impeachment proceedings.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka's security forces already have plenty of experience in brutality. From the mid 1980s, the state fought a long and increasingly bloody war with ethnic Tamil guerillas in the country's north, until they were finally crushed in 2009. The Sri Lankan government is now rejecting calls for an international war crimes investigation into the conflict.

Nor is Sri Lanka alone in seeking to follow the Philippines' bloody example. Last year,  Indonesia imposed a "state of emergency" in response to a supposed crisis of illegal drug use, and announced a "shoot-to-kill" policy modeled on Duterte's. This is already bearing grim fruit. Human Rights Watch this week issued a new report accusing Indonesian police of a "killing spree," with many drug suspects shot while already in detention. 

And earlier this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement expressing alarm over the police killing of durg suspects in Bangladesh.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

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